Some random thoughts on being one of the 4,239,587 Americans over 85 who
were counted in the 2000 census.
For a while now I have been trying to figure out exactly what it's like
to be over 85. The best I can do is 87 going on 50, which is to say
that it is very confusing. The spirit is willing but the flesh is
I would like to find a new name for us. Old people: nah. Senior
Citizens: too trite. Elders: sounds like church officers. Aging:
that starts at day one and doesn't count. Aged: nope, that's top
quality beef. How about just seniors? That suggests dignity and
Whatever the title, I have reached an age where I can philosophize
about the whole matter, and repeat with a straight face the old cliché
that age is relative. It really is. When I was a kid 50 was old.
When I was 50 it was normal and I was having a great time. Now 50 is
young, sort of a never-never land that I can't quite figure out because
it consists of children running the world.
The one fixed thing about aging is the sense of continuity. The 4-plus
million "over 85's" have lived through most of the 20th century. We
have watched our country change from an agrarian land to one in which
electronic and scientific miracles are an every day part of our lives.
The two world wars and a major depression are way in the past. We
remember them all too well, but at a distance. They are now in the
history books the kids only read about.
Maybe even more amazing than the physical changes are the social ones.
Women got the vote. Rosa Parks refused to sit in the back of the bus.
The Equal Rights Amendment failed, but many of its goals have been
achieved by women.
A hundred years ago the average life expectancy in the United States was
47. In 1900 62,000 kids graduated from American High Schools. In 1998
there were 2,456,000.
In 1900 most women only washed their hair once a month and used borax or
egg yolks for shampoo. Nuclear fission, insulin and antibiotics were
far in the future. Scotch tape, crossword puzzles, canned beer and
zippers hadn't been invented. Automobiles and airplanes -- still just
dreams in a few brains.
These changes have come so slowly we can't say, "This is the defining
point when the world changed, when I changed." They have been so
gradual that only the old people can have a true perspective on them.
So here we are in 2001, over 4 million of us. A lot of us still have a
fair amount of energy and still have a lot to contribute. We don't
move as fast as we did at 50, we can't hear or see as well as we did and
our knees and hips are wearing out. We have learned what teenagers
haven't figured out yet, that we are mortal. But lots of times we think
we're still 50, and we finally realize that really, as individuals,
we're pretty much who we always were. It's the world that has changed.
Some people say that we have become a morally decadent nation. I don't
believe it for a minute. After all, 281 million people on one piece of
land (well, three) under one government are not going to agree on
much. But we have become a more tolerant nation as we have become a
more diverse nation.
Perceptions of older people must change. As longevity increases, old
age should appear as a bonus -- an evolutionary opportunity. And as
the baby boomers age, our numbers will increase tremendously.
It has been a miraculous century. I am glad that I have been
privileged to live through most of it. I wonder whether those alive
today who will welcome 2100 will be able to say the same.
Maya Angelou, who is approaching 85, wrote with a wisdom beyond her
years. "I speak to the black experience, but I am always talking about
the human condition-- about what we can endure, dream, fail at, and